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Burton Ng’oma: the unsung independence struggle hero

[By Fred M’membe]

History is usually unfair to ordinary men and women, attributing too much importance to outstanding figures, and giving them too much merit.

It practically ignores the ordinary men and women who made possible the circumstances that exalted one person over others, making them important in national and world public opinion.

As we commemorate the 56th anniversary of our country’s independence we should pay special tribute to the ordinary men and women who suffered and struggled without respite for our freedom. Rather than being forgotten with the passing of the years, their names, their exemplary lives, their unselfishness, their heroism, should be remembered by all of us. We should see them live again. Above all, they should remain alive in our consciousness and in our hearts. On days such as this, we should remember all those who gave their lives for our country’s independence.

Today, my attention turns to an unsung hero of the independence struggle, Burton Ng’oma Chisashi. Burton was born on May 5, 1913, at Mundu village in Chinsali. He started school at Mundu in 1925, a school which opened in 1910 with standards one to four. He managed to get his early education there and was later selected to go to Lubwa Mission, which offered standards five and six.

He used to travel as a weekly boarder from his village, Mundu, which was 39.5 kilometres from Lubwa Mission; a distance he used to walk every Friday back home, and every Sunday back to school from 04:00hrs to 15:45hrs. Burton was a very intelligent student. Noticing this, a British school principal, Dr Brown, requested him to get his parents to accompany him to school one day.

When Burton delivered the message, the information was not well received by his parents, who suspected he had committed a serious offence at school. His father beat him before he even met the principal to hear why he was summoned. He continued to beat his son throughout the journey to meet the principal, to try to force a confession from him about what he had done. This didn’t get him anywhere because even Burton didn’t know why his parents were summoned.

When they reached Lubwa Mission, Dr Brown was surprised to see Burton’s body showing marks of the severe beatings and his eyes swollen due to crying. He asked why the boy had been beaten, and the father said he suspected his son had committed an offence at school, and that was the reason he had been summoned.

The principal explained that it was not an offence he had committed, instead he had discovered that the boy was very intelligent and wanted to ask for permission from his parents to allow him to relocate to his home so he could stay with him. The principal explained that because of the intelligence and good behaviour he had seen in the boy, he wanted him to move from the boarding house he was staying in with his friends. He offered to pay all school fees and provide every support until he finished his education.

His father happily agreed, but before leaving he warned the principal not to steal his son, threatening that the whole of Mundu village would walk to Lubwa Mission and kill the principal if anything bad happened to him. Dr Brown was further warned that the entire Mundu village would travel to UK and destroy the area Dr Brown came from if young Burton was harmed in any way. Happily, Burton lived with Dr Brown until he finished his standard six.

The principal had a typewriter in his home and Burton used to play with it, eventually mastering typing skills. He developed an interest in typing because he used to see Dr Brown typing documents for the mission every evening and at weekends.

In 1935, Burton was the only student from 300 Bemba colleagues who managed to qualify to go on to standard six from those who sat the exams in the whole region now called Muchinga Province. In Namwanga 190 students sat the exams and six passed. In Tumbuka 145 students passed, and no one passed from 115 students in Mambwe.

Burton continued with his education in standard six and had a busy time helping to translate information from English to Icibemba language, working with the Rev Paul Mushindo, a prominent preacher, who was also a specialist in Icibemba. Burton became a devout Christian in the Free Church of Scotland, now known as The United Church of Zambia.

While at the mission, he admired a girl by the name of Mercy Mukuka Tembwe, whom he later married. She was the daughter of Lucy Bwalya Chimutukule, a maid who was working at the home of the Rev David Kaunda. Unfortunately, her mother died at the hands of criminals in Kampemba village in 1981 at the age of 92 and her body was never found. Villagers searched for her and found only a walking stick at the junction of Muganda farms and Mundu Road, from where she was taken.

In the years 1937, 1939, and 1941, God blessed Burton and his wife Mercy with three sons; Wallace Chilufya Wafita, Chilufya Wakashika and Daniel Chewe. Two of them have since died, with Wallace the only survivor.

In 1943, Burton went to Tanzania, East Africa with his wife Mercy to hide from the colonial rulers who wanted to kill him because of his involvement in the independence struggle.

There he worked for Tanzania Railways and was elevated to the position of foreman, eventually reaching the position of station manager. He worked in the towns of Dodoma, Dar-es-Salam, Itigi, Kigoma, and Mbeya, from 1945 to 1959.

Along the way he managed to acquire two shotguns, a rifle and a motor vehicle called Bedford. He retired in 1959 and returned to Mundu village, Chinsali, where he opened a grocery store in 1961. He re-joined politics, and during the Cha Cha Cha period, he provided leadership for the mobilisation of the freedom fighters in Chinsali area using his own resources. His home was a sanctuary for all those who fought for independence.

During the period 1961 to 1963, members of UNIP asked him to help them with his car and his driver Mackson Chilakuka, to be used in the independence struggle. He willingly offered the vehicle to the party, as well as the driver, who continued to draw a salary from Burton. He also provided fuel.

Burton fought a lot, being the only person in the area who had two guns at that time. He used them during Cha Cha Cha in areas where there was serious fighting; in Kamimbi, Musanya, Ilondola, Kambyoshi and Mwalule villages. He was a freedom fighter who was very brave and put his country first before anything. He risked his life in the quest to gain freedom from the hands of the colonial rulers and was fearless, the epitome of a great leadership. He was such an enormous figure in this country in his own right; he gained recognition from many people.

It was as a result of his generosity towards freedom fighters that he was arrested. He was suspected to be providing the fuel that was used to burn bridges in the area, simply because he was the only person who owned a vehicle.

On a memorable day in July 1961, the white district commissioner Mr Hanar and mobile police, as they used to call them, visited the village at around 10:00 hours and found Burton. They beat him in full view of his two sons – Chilufya and Chewe – and burnt his shop. Upon hearing that the police had beaten Burton, his nephews, Andala Munwe, Nashon Shimulunda and Lameck Shauli, rushed to try to rescue him and were equally and brutally beaten.

After Burton lost conscious, they threw him in their vehicle together with his son and nephews and took them to Chinsali remand prison cells. Burton was straight away taken to Lubwa Mission Hospital where he was admitted and remained unconscious for a month. Luckly, he was attended to by a Scottish doctor, Dr Wilson, who was from the clan of Dr David Livingstone. Wilson said he would not rest until he saved Burton because he had been working with the missionaries to spread the gospel. Dr Wilson worked tirelessly to give Burton the best treatment possible, and he eventually regained consciousness.

Dr Wilson supported the blacks’ struggle for their freedom. He was one of the Scottish missionaries who preached in favour of the liberation of Africans at the time. He encouraged the blacks to fight for their freedom and taught them to be fearless in the struggle. He left for Scotland immediately after curing Burton, saying he could no longer live with the bloodshed.

Burton was remanded at Milima prison for three years with two colleagues: Shichinda Ifitayi, and Chisashi. After that they were taken to Mukobeko maximum prison in Kabwe, where they were meant to be sentenced to death. They stayed at Mukobeko prison for four days.

When word went round that Burton had been badly beaten, other colleagues, who were also targeted to be arrested, ran away in the bush. These included Broughtwell Kalulu, who married Burton’s niece. He was a wanted man but, luckily, when the police arrived he was ploughing in the bush.

Upon hearing what had happened, he ran away rather than returning home for fear of being arrested. He continued to fight for the liberation while in the bush, however, resulting in the villagers calling him as ba Fyanifyani.

The police searched for Broughtwell everywhere in the Musanya, Mundu, Chipanga and Chinsali areas. He narrowly escaped death when they finally tracked him down to Musanya village. They attacked his small thatched shelter and burnt it, only to discover that he was not there, having been tipped off by a teacher, Mr Levison.

While at Mukobeko, Burton used to sing his favourite UCZ hymn, No 234, Lesa ekachema wandi, meaning God is my shepherd I will not fear, to strengthen himself while on remand. On the third day, which was the day before they were to be sentenced, they sung the whole night. The following morning, one of them, Shichinda Ifitai, decided to commit suicide using his belt, and died in the cell rather than waiting for the judgement and sentence the following day. It was from this experience that from that time on the authorities ensured they collected belts from inmates as soon as they were detained.

The following night, the prison experienced its first load shedding, which scared the white prison warders. When this was reported to the judges, they concluded that the prisoners were innocent and that this was why they had experienced the load shedding, after one of them had committed suicide. They considered it to be a signal that they should not go ahead with sentencing the remaining two, in case it resulted in something worse.

It was as a result of this that Burton and Chisashi were acquitted and set free after denying the charges against them. They were the first prisoners at that time to be set free from Mukobeko maximum prison.

After his release, Burton continued to help the struggle until Zambia gained independence. After independence, he worked as a ward councillor in Chipanga, Chinsali constituency, and at one time worked under Dr Waza Kaunda, who was a member of parliament for Chinsali.

It was during this period that he was visited by a grandson of Dr Brown’s, Mr Ipenberg, a history teacher in Netherlands, who travelled to gather information about his grandfather. He wanted to find out where Chinsali was, and specifically, Lubwa Mission, where his grandfather was a principal. When he reached the mission he was quick to ask where he could find Burton Ng’oma and was directed to Watson Mpanduka, Burton’s nephew.

Watson tried to talk him out of going to Mundu village by telling him that Burton had grown very old and could neither remember anything nor speak. Despite being told this, Mr Ipenberg insisted it would defeat the purpose of his travelling to Zambia if he could not see Burton, even in his old age. He explained that he was writing a book about his grandfather.

When they reached Mundu village, Mr Ipenberg refused to wait for Burton to return from working in the fields, following him on foot instead. When they reached the farm, Mr Ipenberg spotted Burton right away, without even having him pointed out, and spent nine hours interviewing him about how he lived with Dr Brown.

Burton also worked under the then governor of Chinsali, Daniel Mukosa, following a vacancy after the untimely death of Kenneth Mulenga Nongo, who collapsed and died while addressing a political meeting. The death scared the people of Chinsali with people reluctant to apply for the job.

President Kaunda decided that his son, Dr Waza Kaunda, be “sacrificed” and stand as member of parliament amid allegations of witchcraft. As a result he started mobilising the party in the area with Burton.

Burton died on May 13, 1991, and was buried in his village, Mundu. Having come from a loyal family he was buried at a location far away from his village, as per tradition.

Burton died with scars on his body, which he treasured. He showed them to his grandchildren as a mark of his struggle and triumph against the colonial oppressors. He used to boast that the scars from the beatings he and his fellow freedom fighters suffered at the hands of the whites while in jail, were indelible marks of the love for Zambia he showed during the Welensky rule.

Eternal glory to men and women like Burton and his comrades!

The author is president of the Socialist Party.

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